Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Relay for community, for family, for a cause ... for LIFE

Saturday morning, I'll be participating in the opening ceremony at the Pottstown Relay for Life representing The Mercury as a community partner with Relay in the fight against cancer.
The Mercury and pottsmerc.com are often held up by local Relay organizers as a tremendous boost to their success. We have always said covering Relay in this town as a front-page, above-the-fold story is just doing our jobs.
Relay is a tremendous boost to the Pottstown area as the ultimate community event, involving thousands of people working together for a cause that affects their families and friends.
Last year, the Pottstown Relay was featured in an episode of The Food Network's Ace of Cakes. The Relay has been visited by state and national heads of the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life programs as the little town that raised a million dollars, the place that started Dimes Make a Difference, the originator of Kids for a Cure, and most recently, the town that let the dogs out and started Bark for Life canine relays, now taking off in communities around the globe.
Pottstown is a rock star of Relays. Still, it is difficult to know whether to rejoice for the way this community fights, or weep because part of the success is that cancer has touched so many lives here.
Cancer has touched the family of Mercury employees many times and in many heart-wrenching stories. It is for the people we have lost and the survivors we have stood beside that Relay is such an important story to us.
If you have a few minutes Saturday, come out to the track at Pottsgrove High School. Support the teams there by buying a raffle ticket or lunch or a snack. Take a lap. Join in; be part of the community that takes up the fight.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Setting the record straight

"Boyertown Area School District administrator pay freeze off the table for now"
That headline which appeared on our website Wednesday and in The Mercury on Thursday caused a flurry of protest, including an email from Boyertown schools superintendent Dion Betts to people in the community.
Protesters claimed the headline misrepresented the school actions. It did not.
The key words, that many seem to have missed, are the six letters FOR NOW.
This news article written by Mercury staff writer Phil Ellingsworth Jr. reports on the administrator pay freeze which has been discussed as part of the Boyertown Area School Board budget cuts.
The article stemmed from a Tuesday night meeting in which a printed agenda item to approve a pay freeze for district administrators was removed from the agenda to allow more discussion.
Neither the article nor the headline says the administrators are unwilling to accept a salary freeze.
Neither says the salary freeze proposal has been scrapped.
Neither says there won't be a salary freeze.
Both the news article and headline say the freeze wasn't approved Tuesday and was taken off the agenda -- off the table, so to speak -- for now so that more discussion can take place. The content or goals of that discussion was not revealed by school officials.
After this article was posted on The Mercury website, commenters added their opinions on administrators versus teachers regarding a salary freeze, since Boyertown teachers have offered and been approved to hold their salaries at current levels.
The comments followed a presumption that administrators are dragging their feet on this issue. The story did not say that.
The reaction continued to spin in an errant direction on Thursday, when Superintendent Dion Betts sent out an email to many people in the community, stating:
"You may have read an article in the Mercury about the administrative pay freeze. There is some misunderstanding.
The administration IS taking a pay freeze. There were more discussions with the board in this regard, and that’s it."
The email titled "Superintendent's update" included a link to our accurate but misunderstood article. Earlier, on Wednesday, Betts had complained that the headline on the article was misleading, and while admitting the reporting was accurate, he asked that it be changed.
Another email received Thursday from a member of Community United for Boyertown insisted the article was wrong, and suggested it be corrected to say the salary freeze was just tabled for discussion purposes, not taken out of the budget proposal.
Which is precisely what Ellingsworth's story stated.
In retrospect, we perhaps could have worded the headline differently to say the pay freeze was tabled Tuesday for the point of discussion. But to be truthful, "for now" seems to work just as well.
We could have used a word other than "tabled" but removing an item from the agenda defines the action of being "tabled," so that too seems silly.
We suggest that instead school officials could have been more specific in what they still needed to discuss. Or, they could have been more careful and refrained from putting an item on the agenda if they weren't ready to act on it.
Betts said, and we quoted, that the pay freeze would be voted on before the final budget adoption in June. That tells readers pretty clearly that it's going to happen and has not gone away.
We respect the right of Betts to underscore the importance of this issue, but the bottom line is that we reported this situation accurately.
And we will continue to do so, "for now" and for the future.

Friday, May 20, 2011

An idea whose time has not yet come

HARRISBURG - "An idea whose time may not have come."
In more than three hours of testimony -- and no breaks -- those words from AARP representative Ray Landis hit closest to the truth in the House committee hearing Thursday on House Bill 633, which would lift the requirement on local governments and school boards to advertise legal notices in newspapers.
During the session, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association lobbied for a rejection of the bill on the premise it denies the public's right to know and will have a devastating financial effect on newspapers in Pennsylvania.
On the other side are the associations of township, borough and county governments and school boards arguing that the publication requirement is a costly unnecessary mandate in a world going digital. The associations argued the public would be best served by putting notices on county, municipal and school district websites "for free."
Some of the most conflicting testimony and rebuttal came on the subject of how much governments will save if the paid advertisement requirement is lifted and how much they will spend to fit the legal requirements for website publishing without violating fair bidding practices and open meetings laws.
Newspaper publishers Martin Till and Bernard Oravec, of the Easton Express-Times and Williamsport Sun-Gazette respectively, offered eloquent analyses of the loss of revenue to family-owned Pennsylvania newspaper companies as well as denying public notices access to a large segment of the population.
"The system is not broken," Till said more than once during Thursday's hearing, which was attended by more than 60 editors and publishers.
Till's point was that public notices are not only printed in newspapers at the lowest advertising rate available but are also provided in a searchable database online, mypublicnotices.com.
Those who read newspapers can learn what their local governments are doing and those who want to search the web can find the same information there.
If notices are only on government websites, the segment of the population without computers -- estimated to be more than half of all Pennsylvanians over 65 -- would not be privy to the date of an upcoming zoning hearing for a trash-transfer plant in their neighborhood or the public notice of a potential pollutant being discharged into a nearby stream or a meeting to hear testimony on why their school district should raise taxes instead of cutting the music program.
The lobbyists who represent the local government agencies argued that the world is going digital, newspapers are dying, and this bill is in keeping with the times.
The AARP's Landis, who capped off the list of 12 presenters, made the point that both sides are right, but the "time may not have come" yet.
We are a world going digital at breakneck speed, but not everyone is there yet.
The irony was not lost that in a roomful of people arguing for the value of print newspapers, many were live-tweeting the testimony on iPads.
And, while insisting that online is where people get their information, state Association of Township Supervisors spokesman Elam Herr "confessed" he reads a newspaper every day and isn't on Facebook.
Landis pointed out that national statistics regarding the daily use of computers may tell a different story than Pennsylvania figures. Pennsylvania has one of the largest populations of senior citizens in the nation, second only to Florida, and it also has one of the largest populations of lower-income seniors.
This is the segment of the population that relies on newspapers for its information. These citizens, who are homeowners, taxpayers, voters, are the ones would not see public notices if notices are not required by law to remain in print newspapers.
Putting public notices exclusively on websites will leave a large segment of the population without access to important public information, particularly in this commonwealth.
Another irony in Thursday's hearing was that by sheer coincidence I was sitting in the hearing room with the editor who first hired me into this business, Bob Urban, now editor of the Lehighton Times-News.
Bob hired me in the age of typewriters, and now I'm checking e-mail on an iPhone. How times have changed.
Changing still -- and changing quickly -- is where we find ourselves in the media industry. We are not abandoning our loyal print readers, but we cannot ignore the digital pull of information.
Part of not abandoning those who rely on print is fighting to preserve paid public notices as insurance that citizens know what their government agencies are planning without needing Internet access to find out.
Putting legal notices on the web may sound to some like a good idea, but it's "an idea whose time may not have come."

Monday, May 16, 2011

If you care about your school taxes, be sure to vote

Area school board meetings in recent months have attracted hundreds of people offering input into the work of running school districts.
Now, those same people -- if you are registered voters -- can do something with more lasting results than talk.
Today you can vote for candidates to serve on those school boards. And although this election is a primary in Pennsylvania, many school board seats and judges will be decided today.
Candidates for school boards and judges may cross-file in Pennyslvania, which means their names appear on both Republican and Democratic ballots. If a candidate is a top vote-getter on both lines, the name will appear on both sides of the general election ballot in November, virtually assuring election.
Under that practice, the five open seats on the Pottstown School Board could be decided today. Ten candidates are seeking election, but the five top vote-getters could be assured election if they win the top five spots on both ballots.
Eight candidates are seeking nominations for five open seats on the Perkiomen Valley School Board; 11 candidates are seeking nominations for five seats in the Boyertown Area School District; six candidates are vying for five seats on the Owen J. Roberts School Board, and six candidates are vying for five open seats on the Spring-Ford Area School Board.
District judge races in Pottstown and Amity-Oley could be decided today if one of two candidates for each spot wins both party lines.
And, in North Coventry, four Republicans are seeking nomination for two township supervisor spots. There are no Democrats running, so the two top Republican vote-getters will likely not face opposition in the fall.
Local elections -- primaries in particular -- typically draw low turnout. Yet these are the same elections that determine the decision-makers for the most important local matters in our communities.
Voters who go to the polls today will be choosing those who determine how school tax money is spent and who adjudicate the crimes and disputes that come before them.
If these issues are important enough to bring out hundreds of people to night meetings, they are important enough to draw voters to the polls.
Today’s primary is your chance to have a say in local government, local school boards, local courts. Don’t neglect to exercise that right and vote.
Polls open at 7 a.m.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Should we publish graphic photos of bin Laden? You tell us

The question of whether the White House would release video and photos of slain Osama bin Laden on Tuesday became a matter of what and when, not whether or not. And with that change came our own questions: What do we do with them?
Despite the prevalence of graphic images in video games, movies and increasingly on TV, there remains a taboo on graphic images in published newspapers like The Mercury.
Photographers and editors carefully scan images from local car crashes to be certain there is nothing visible of a dead victim. We even crop out or refrain from publishing a victim’s purse or headband or sweatshirt which may have been thrown to the side of a roadway in a fatal crash.
Admittedly, we have made mistakes and published photos that included the sight of a grieving mother or a victim’s shoe or a glimpse of an arm in the background that we didn’t realize belonged to the victim. These are not intentional, not meant “to sell papers,” but are details we missed despite our efforts.
In national or international news stories, the criteria changes a bit. A disaster the magnitude of the Haiti earthquakes a year ago or the long-ago Jonestown massacre involved publication of photos that included bodies or hard-to-watch video on our website of bloodied scenes of devastation.
Despite what many think, we don’t do this for profit but out of a sense of responsibility to show just what people are enduring and how desperately help is needed.
The question Tuesday on what to do with photos of an evil terrorist killed with a shot to the head by U.S. Navy Seals was an entirely different debate.
The release of the photos was considered by many as necessary to prove that bin Laden was dead, and that U.S. military officials were not “making it up.” We asked our readers Monday on Facebook if they thought the White House should release photos, and most said yes.
“Yes, because I think the world needs to know he’s gone for sure!” wrote Jessica Lynn Ebersole.
“I would not want to see them, but it also wouldn’t leave people wondering either,” wrote Amber McClune.
“We should be able to see his body to bring complete closure especially to those families that had loved ones killed during 9/11,” wrote Kimberly Ann Barry Ibach.
On Tuesday, we followed by asking readers if they thought we should publish the photos.
Here’s what you said:
“Maybe on line, but not in the paper because of children seeing it,” said Jim Folk.
Ashley Brooke answered, “Absolutely not. Dead is dead, seeing a graphic image should not make anyone feel better, and children could see!”
“Yes, but please make sure you warn us first. I don’t want to see it on accident,” said Becky Simmers.
“Absolutely publish them the American people deserve to be able to see the proof. If you dont wanna look then don’t! I personally do!” wrote Amber May.
Dave Brewer said, “No ... if someone wants to see them, there will be plenty of places to find them on the internet. No reason my kids (11,9, 7 and 5) should see them plastered on the front page of the paper they see every day.”
“I think they should be released online or in a sealed insert in the paper, that way people can choose if they want to see it or not and make sure their children are not in the room,” wrote Sheryl Wynn.
White House officials revealed that the photos they would release would show that bin Laden was shot above his left eye, blowing away part of his skull. He was also shot in the chest, they said.
Other photos were described as showing the adult son of bin Laden slain as well as a courier and his brother. The photo of the burial at sea, while not as graphic, was also controversial and could inflame Islamic sentiment.
As we discussed how to handle publication including the comments of readers on Facebook, we came back to the sentiment that this is a “family newspaper,” as our readers like to remind us, and we understand that we are “welcomed” into our readers’ homes.
You can’t change the channel or unplug the game once you open the pages of the paper.
But we are also a news organization and the stakes for providing witness to the death of this long-sought criminal are too high to ignore.
Our debate on how to handle the photos was based on trust in our readers that discretion will be used with children and with others who may find the images disturbing. We plan to not publish the more graphic photos in print but include that content on our website. We will be making them available to those who choose to click on them and not displaying them openly to those who don’t.
The news importance of bin Laden’s death is too significant in world history to forego printing images of his burial at sea. Just as we report on the funeral of those whose lives influenced the course of history by their good acts, his burial is a news event, and we are not doing our jobs if we shy away from it.
The angst behind all this comes down to one point made succinctly on our Facebook page by Adam Andrews:
After all, “a picture is worth a thousand words.”